Being an elite athlete with inflammatory bowel disease

Keara Maguire at the Nagano Olympics

In 1998, Keara Maguire sat in front of her TV in Kelowna, BC watching the Nagano Winter Olympics. After seeing skaters from around the world sprinting and gliding around the long track, she turned to her mother and said, “I want to go to the Olympics for speed skating.” Soon after that declaration, Keara’s mother found a local club for her to skate with, and blades and breakaways became her life. 

Even after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the age of 20, Keara continued to push herself, and earned a spot on Canada’s 2014 Olympic Talent Squad. But as the challenges of colitis grew, Keara had to adjust her priorities and concentrate on her health. 

Now dedicated to her academic career in healthcare – with the help of a 2015 AbbVie IBD Scholarship – Keara’s experience training and competing at an elite level while living with inflammatory bowel disease  is valuable insight for athletes of any level who have Crohn’s or colitis. She answers some questions about sport and IBD below: 

How did your diagnosis impact your training? Your competitions? 

During one summer of training I was having worse and worse abdominal pain and more frequent trips to the bathroom. I didn’t know what was going on, but I tried my best to stay tough and just work through it and not complain. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse to deal with illness as an elite athlete. By virtue of sport and training I was used to pushing through pain, acting tough, being tough, and never complaining. There’s almost an element of pride in being able to “push through.”  

I eventually pushed my body to the point where I had to be taken to emergency. Through being admitted I was scoped and diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. My training and competitions suffered immediately from my first flare up. I wasn’t able to do as much and was forced to miss important weeks of training. It was very frustrating going to competitions knowing I wasn’t optimally prepared, and that not being prepared was out of my control. We’re always told that if you work hard enough and set your mind to it you can do anything, but sometimes getting the opportunity to work hard is taken away. 

Did you manage to train and compete during flare-ups, or did you have to put everything on hold? 

Depending on the severity of the flare up, I tried to push through training and compete while sick. Some days I could, but it was very difficult. Having missed sleep, taking frequent trips to the washroom, and dealing with pain and fatigue means having to add extra layers of motivation. At a certain point in almost all of my flare ups, I would end up hospitalized for a few weeks and would, of course, miss training and racing. 

As an athlete, you care so much about what you’re working towards and you’re willing to do some extreme things to improve your performance. I remember during one hospital stay I was worrying about muscle loss and weakness. I actually would periodically get out of bed and do a few body weight squats – in my hospital gown with IVs and all! After five squats with no weight I would be sore, but I felt like I needed to activate those muscles, even if in a minor way. 

Are there things you can do when you’re not feeling your best to still maintain fitness? 

There are some things you can do. I see them as a way to limit ‘non-gut’ issues. I’m not sure how big of an impact diet has on the actual disease process, but diet can affect so many other things. I try to keep on top of the simple life choices: having a well-balanced diet, staying adequately hydrated, taking any vitamins/minerals recommended by my doctor, going for regular blood tests, and avoiding things that are unhealthy in everyone, like alcohol.  

In terms of activity, I have always tried to stay as active as my body can handle regardless of how sick I am. Sometimes that means walking for 10 meters, sometimes it’s going for a four-hour bike ride. But no matter what activity I am doing, it’s always based on how I feel. I always try to maximize activity as there are many benefits for your heart, lungs, bones, joints, etc. In my mind, if one of my organs sucks, why let all the others suck too? Also, I strongly believe the regular boost in endorphins benefits IBD patients. It’s common for people with IBD to also experience anxiety and depression, and I have found exercise is one way to counteract that. Every little bit counts. 

Aside from the obvious physical drawbacks of ulcerative colitis, did any mental elements of the disease impact your training or competitiveness? 

In retrospect, the mental effects of IBD, especially in early years of diagnosis, were huge. I didn’t realize it at the time because my view was so narrow and I was focused on one day at a time. I lost track of who I was and what was happening to me. Anxiety and depression have been the biggest factors for me. Not knowing if there is access to washrooms, not knowing when pain will start or end, not knowing if you will have enough energy to get through your commitments. For me, the depression came a bit later as I started to realize I couldn’t be the person I had always identified as. 

I always felt proud of having a great work ethic, endurance, and mental toughness, but I realized all of those traits were capped, and it had nothing to do with me being unwilling. That was difficult to come to terms with because I felt like I was trapped in a body that didn’t belong to me. 

How did you come to terms with your Olympic dreams not coming to fruition? 

I eventually came to terms with never becoming an Olympian by finding new passions. The transition out of sport actually wasn’t very negative for me. 

Sometimes I think of training with IBD like running sprints with a parachute – there’s a little extra resistance, which can make you stronger. But as my colitis became more severe, it was like running with a parachute while being tripped and sometimes falling down. Eventually it wasn’t a challenge that any amount of work could overcome, and that was frustrating. 

Around that time, I found myself interested in science classes at school. I realized that I really enjoyed learning, and I was very curious about how the world works. At a certain point, I noticed that daydreams of my future weren’t all of speed skating and the Olympics. I started picturing myself in classes and labs and working in a hospital. I felt more inspired by the healthcare workers that saved me so many times than I did superstar athletes. It just happened with time and I rolled with it. I feel less frustrated that I can no longer be the driven athlete I thought I was, and I can feel proud of the person my experiences have shaped me to be. 

How has the IBD Scholarship that you earned in 2015 helped you? 

The IBD Scholarship was a huge help for me and couldn’t have come at a better time. My most recent flare up led me to drop out of school because I had to have four successive surgeries. Through this time, I was out of class and wasn’t able to keep up with work or finances as well as I normally would. Being able to come out of that and go back to school with the scholarship support was a life saver. Thank you! 

Keara Maguire is currently in the middle of her practicum at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver as she continues to work towards a career in respiratory therapy.

  • Canada has among the highest incidence rates of Crohn's and colitis in the world.
  • 1 in 140 Canadians lives with Crohn’s or colitis.
  • Families new to Canada are developing these diseases for the first time.
  • Incidence of Crohn’s in Canadian kids under 10 has doubled since 1995.
  • People are most commonly diagnosed before age 30.

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